GREENSBORO — Guilford County’s first-term sheriff ran into questions this week as he sought additional money in next year’s budget for replacement vehicles and a counseling program that helps newly released inmates turn their lives around.
Sheriff Danny Rogers and his staff asked the Guilford County Board of Commissioners to approve more than $243,000 for seven cars to be used by school resource officers.
They also sought board permission to take $189,000 for the counseling program from a county account funded by commissary purchases and phone charges rung up by Guilford County jail inmates.
Commissioners questioned the need for additional vehicle spending at a cost of just less than $35,000 per car and wondered whether proceeds from jail inmates were the right source to pay for the rehabilitation program.
Commissioner Jeff Phillips noted that the county budget under consideration that Rogers and his staff were seeking to augment already included more than $68.5 million for the sheriff’s office.
“Can it not be found, that $400,000, within that $69 million by the sheriff’s team?” Phillips asked of the proposed expenses.
The setting was a Monday afternoon work session in the Old County Courthouse hosted by the board as it prepares the final version of its 2019-20 budget, scheduled to take effect July 1.
A majority of the commissioners want to avoid raising the county property-tax rate while facing increased demands for school improvements and other needs in a local economy where growth in tax revenue is not keeping pace.
The session was an opportunity for department heads whose operations are part of the county budget to request additional money or other changes in the county manager’s recommended spending plan.
Rogers spoke briefly to the board but entrusted much of the ensuing presentation to two aides, Capt. Daryl Loftis and administrator Sharon Harrison-Pope.
Loftis said money for the additional seven vehicles was needed to provide the school officers with a reliable means of transportation that presents a professional image when parked outside a school and that does not cost a prohibitive amount to maintain.
The requested car money would augment $1.35 million that the proposed county budget already provides the sheriff’s office for 38 vehicles — an average of just more than $35,500 per car.
Loftis said the seven cars for the school officers would not be pursuit cars so they would not, for example, need such extra equipment as radar. They would replace the officers’ current, county-owned vehicles that, on average, are 11 years old and have nearly 150,000 miles on their odometers, Loftis said.
The sheriff’s office deploys deputies to school campuses throughout the county to protect students and help maintain order.
Later, Harrison-Pope told commissioners that the inmate reentry program was in the process of transitioning from a pilot initiative paid for by a state grant to one that the county could finance.
The program serves roughly 250 former inmates, has a staff of two case managers and has shown promising results in preventing newly released offenders from getting into fresh trouble with the law, she said.
Harrison-Pope said that after their release, about 48% of people who have been incarcerated run afoul of the law again within three years. In the last year, that has happened to only 7% of participants in the local program, she said.
In his summary of the proposed budget last month, County Manager Marty Lawing said his proposal included $79,000 for the reentry program to use “after (the) grant expires, contingent upon establishing a data collection and program evaluation framework” to show definitively how well it had worked as a pilot program.
Commissioner Hank Henning said that Monday was the first time he had heard of the program’s need for additional county money. He said he was leery of such grant-financed programs because people are hired who then risk losing their jobs when the grant money is gone.
Commissioner Melvin “Skip” Alston said he did not like using money spent by jail inmates, many of whom are being held for trial and are presumed innocent as they await their day in court.
On the car purchases, several commissioners said they did not understand why the sheriff’s office had not replaced them sooner, noting that the county provides money in the sheriff’s budget every year to replace 35 to 38 cars.
“Apparently somewhere along the line the ball has been dropped,” Loftis said. “It was really sickening to see how old some of the vehicles people have been driving are.”
The board did not make a final, formal decision on either proposed expenditure. Alston made a motion to approve using the requested amount from the inmate account for the reentry program.
But he withdrew that motion after Phillips said he could not support it.
“I need some more details,” Phillips said. “I’m not going to approve it on the fly.”
Commissioners agreed they would revisit the sheriff’s spending plan after his office provided more details.
Rogers’ office declined to comment on the situation Tuesday through spokesman Max Benbassat, who said it will respond to the commissioners’ request for more information.
Commissioner Carolyn Coleman, who had seconded Alston’s motion before its withdrawal, said the board was treating Rogers’ request differently than it had previous law enforcement spending requests.
“We as a board have never looked at every dime that was spent in law enforcement,” Coleman said.
The Greensboro Democrat drew chuckles when she recalled that the board had even approved former Republican Sheriff BJ Barnes’ request to buy Segway scooters for official use.
That’s true, but a previous board that included Coleman put Barnes through the wringer before approving the scooters, which also were for the school resource officer program.
In January 2013, Coleman, Henning, current Republican board Chairman Alan Branson and then-Commissioners Bill Bencini and Bruce Davis formed the majority that rejected Barnes’ request to spend $49,655 in drug forfeiture money on scooters to help resource officers get around their campuses more quickly.
It took nearly eight months before the board relented. But on Aug. 15 that year, commissioners approved the school resource Segways in an 8-1 vote: By then, the scooters’ price tag had risen by $3,125.